To write about India’s struggle for freedom and not highlight the contribution of the North Eastern states of the country would be unjust. After all, like many others around India, the hills of the North East have their heroes who defied the Colonial Rule and fought hard to drive the British out of the region. What disheartens me is the fact that history remembers only those whose names have made it to the textbooks circulated in schools and colleges. Thus, after covering the Eastern part of the country, I landed in Guwahati with the sole purpose of travelling across the North East, learning about ‘the sons and daughters of the hills’ who were part of the freedom movement. Satisfied with the services and amenities provided by my hotel in Kolkata, I decided to stay at another Treebo in Guwahati – Grand Bhabendra Alay. So here is my final chapter – covering the ‘Unsung Heroes of North East India’.
Bir Tikendrajit Singh – Kangleipak/Manipur
The British and their selfish interests! And this time it was the Manipuri people who fell headlong into their trap. The death of Maharaja Chandrakirti in 1886 caused political mayhem in Manipur – an independent kingdom at that point in time. Surchandra Singh succeeded him to the throne but this was met with disapproval by his brothers Kulchandra and Tikendrajit. After numerous battles, Surchandra Singh abdicated the throne and left for Cachar, while Kulchandra became King and Tikendrajit, ‘Senapati’ or commander of the Manipuri army. But did it end there? No! To get even with his brothers who did Surchandra approach? The British of course! All too happy to meddle with the political situation in Manipur, J.W Quinton, the chief commander of Assam arrived in Manipur on March 22, 1891. By orders given to him, Quinton was to acknowledge Kulchandra as King of Manipur and arrest Tikendrajit. This was not to be and the Manipuri army fought the British troops. J.W Quinton was killed.
In a series of events that followed, the British sent three batches of troops on March 31, 1891 – one from Kohima under Major General H. Collet, the second from Tamu (in Burma, now Myanmar) under Brigadier General T. Graham and the third from Silchar under Colonel R.H.F Rennick. Tikendrajit led the Manipuri army and a bloody battle ensued where Kangla was finally taken captive on April 27, 1891. Tikendrajit was soon caught by the British forces on May 23 and was put to death by hanging on August 13 at Kangjei Bung (the famous Polo Ground). Today, there is a flyover ‘Bir Tikendrajit’ dedicated to this fierce man who gave his life while trying to oust the British troops from Manipur.
I have lived in Imphal, the capital of Manipur and visited Kangla Fort and Bir Tikendrajit Park on numerous occasions. The imposing fort and the surrounding landscaped gardens are a delight to visit though one cannot help think of the bloody Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. With my friend to explain the significance of certain monuments and structures within the fort, here are some of the discoveries that I made here. The Fort houses many ponds out of which the ‘Nunjeng Pukhri Achouba’ is the most important. It is believed to be the abode of the supreme deity of the Manipuri people – Lord Pankhangpa. The site where J.W Quinton’s head was buried is called ‘Nunggoibi’ and trust me, the very thought of this sent shivers down my spine. Then there is ‘Manglen’ the site where the mortal remains of the kings of Manipur were cremated and the reconstructed Shree Govindaji Temple. I also came across two serpentine boats called ‘Hiyang Hiren’ used by the ancient kings of the land. Alas, the museum was not open and thus I had to cut short of my trip to Kangla Fort.
Kanaklata Barua – Assam
While most teens around the country today are busy watch Game of Thrones, here was a girl who was shot dead just because she dared to hoist the Indian flag in defiance of the Brits. Also called Birbala, Kanaklata joined a death squad in Gohpur, Assam (Mrityu Bahini) and along with a group of unarmed villagers marched towards the local police station to hoist the Indian flag. This did not go down well with the British who were already dealing with the political turmoil caused by the Quit India Movement and thus warned Kanaklata Barua with dire consequences. Unfettered by their threats, Kanaklata marched forward and was shot dead on September 20, 1942.
Visiting Gohpur Police Station was the highlight of my trip to Assam. The structure with its yellow walls, now worn down with time reminds one of the fateful day when Kanaklata was shot in the chest. Despite the day being bright and sunny, I could sense an air of gloom and despair surrounding the police station. An eerie silence engulfed the place, something that prevented me from venturing too close to the cottage-like structure. Alas, young blood was spilt here. Though Kanaklata Barua was silenced on September 20, 1942, her legend lives on, not just in history textbooks but in the hearts of her people. Apart from the infamous police station, I also paid a visit to the site where her body was cremated and as well the statue in Borngabari, Gohpur that was erected in memory of the beloved freedom fighter from Assam.
Rani Gaidinliu – Nagaland and Manipur
A Nagamese from the district of Tamenglong in Manipur, Gaidinliu dedicated her life to driving out the British troops from Manipur and the surrounding areas of Nagaland. At the tender age of 13, she joined the Heraka Religious Movement which soon turned political. Her constant protests did not go down well with the British. In 1932, Gaidinliu (now 16) was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, this never dampened her spirits. It was in 1937 that she was bestowed the title of ‘Rani’ by Jawaharlal Nehru who paid her a visit at Shillong Jail. Her efforts finally bore fruit when India achieved freedom in 1947 and she was released from jail. Released, she continued to advocate ancestral religious practices of the Nagamese people. This ‘daughter of the North East’ was bestowed with awards such as the Freedom Fighter Tamrapatra Award 1972 by none other than Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Padma Bhushan 1982 by President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the Vivekananda Sewa Samman 1983 by Bada Bazar Kumar Sabha Pustakalaya, Kolkata and the Birsa Munda Award in 1996 (Posthumous).
Traveling through Manipur, especially if one is an outsider, can be a little risky and hence I was glad to have a friend (a local) accompany me to Longkhai. Here, I visited the memorial of Rani Gaidinliu. The winding roads are a treat and I enjoyed our little stopovers at home-run eateries that served delicious Manipuri food. What amazes me was the sheer grit and determination on the part of a young tribal girl who devoted her life to the cause of her people – the Zeliangrong tribe.
Tirot Sing Syiem – Meghalaya
No mention of him in history textbooks around the country and no street named after him but Tirot Sing Syiem is considered to be one of the greatest among the freedom fighters from North East India. He spent his life fighting British forces hoping to prevent the Khasi Hills from being captured. However, the Khasi Chief was captured and defeated by the British on April 4, 1829. This spirited freedom fighter drew his last breath on July 1835 in Dhaka.
It was rather appalling to see some important sites in Meghalaya that are linked to Tirot Sing Syiem crumble to the ground. ‘Krem Tirot’ one such spot at Nongkhla in Nongkhlaw which was until a few years ago inaccessible due to the lack of a proper road, can now be reached, thanks to the contributions made by local people. I could not make it to Nongkhla due to strikes in the region, but what I took back with me was that one may not always receive recognition for their work, however, that should never be the reason for one to take a step back.
Paona Brajabashi – Manipur
With a road and market dedicated in memory of his efforts to oust the British, it’s difficult not to ask about Paona Brajabashi when in Imphal. Khongjom village, the site of the epic battle between the Brits and the army of Manipur led by Paona Brajabashi was the next place I visited. Until the fierce battle in 1891, this little village was a peaceful place. However, this village witnessed bloodshed and many Manipuri soldiers were killed. It was at this battle that Paona Brajabashi sacrificed his life defending his land from the British imperialists. His efforts were lauded by the government and a war memorial was erected in Thoubal on Kheba hills. Driving past vast paddy fields and enjoying the breathtaking landscape of Manipur made travelling fun. While I had my friend (a Manipuri) who kept providing me with information about the state, I felt accomplished having visited this war memorial in Thoubal.
There are countless people who played their part in India’s struggle for freedom. Few of these are Kushal Konwar (Assam), Moje Riba and Matmur Jamoh (Arunachal Pradesh), Gopinath Bordoloi (Assam) and Shoorvir Pasaltha Khuangchera (Mizoram). Though I may not cover all of them in this piece, I salute every soul that stood up against the British.